Indigenous Stories

“The stories were of people and whanaungatanga, of the plaiting that gives strength to the basket, the weaving that gives the basket beauty, and of koha that makes the basket full.”

-Patricia Grace, Potiki

I grew up in the United States, and our education in Native American culture was pathetic at best. What happened to indigenous people in every colonized country (so, most countries) is heartbreaking. My introduction to the violence of colonization was a book I found in the library in elementary school about an indigenous community that encounters European invaders. In the indigenous community, everyone had a sacred name that could only be invoked a few times during their lifetime. The main character’s sacred name was used when they were introduced to the Europeans, and the Europeans abused it throughout the novel until the main character lost their spirit. This was one of the few books I read as a child with an unhappy ending, and it stuck with me.

I’m always eager to learn more about indigenous cultures, and I found a book of Australian aboriginal fables by A.W. Reed at a secondhand store. I’m 90% positive that the author is not aboriginal himself (the back says that Wells was interested in aboriginal culture, which always brings to mind the kind of white person that collects tribal masks), so I wanted to pair this with a book written by an indigenous author. Fortunately Potiki, Patricia Grace’s novel about a Maōri community threatened by commercial development, has just come into print in the UK.

Despite the questionable authorship of the Australian aboriginal fables, I found them very entertaining to read. The underlying idea behind all of the stories in this book is that all animals were once humans, and they turned into animals when they acted in poor judgement or were faced with difficult choices. Reed organized this book by animal, which I found really interesting, because there were multiple origin stories for each animal. Several of the stories encouraged women to accept their role as wives and mothers; in one fable, two sisters who attempt to live independently of their tribe are frightened back into a traditional role by the end. The sentences in this book were unremarkable, since everything was meant to be informative and moralistic, but I was intrigued by the shift in narration at the end of the collection. Most of the fables are written in the third person, beginning with phrases like, “Long, long ago”. The last story, however, is entirely in dialogue, and it has a scene: a grandmother is gathered around a fire with a group of children in her community, and she is warning them to behave themselves. The grandmother uses the children’s uncle as an example, as he fell prey to the evil Yara-ma-yha-who, and she is characterized vividly. She has “high-pitched laughter”, and she looks “mournfully” away when she is asked why she couldn’t protect her relative. Whatever Reed’s motivations were, he chose a moving way to end the book, since the image of young children around the fire reminds the reader that these fables not just stories from “long, long ago”; they are part of an existing culture.

Patricia Grace’s novel Potiki is a beautifully written and very satisfying account of victory against white corporate culture. It’s hard to accept that it was written almost forty years ago, because indigenous groups have still received so little compensation. The novel is about a farming community near the coast in New Zealand, and their land is threatened when the local government wants to open a resort with access to the coast. Grace writes chapters from different members of a family. The mother, Roimata, worked as a teacher elsewhere in New Zealand before she returned to marry her childhood sweetheart and live and work off of the ancestral land. The father, Hemi, decided to dedicate his life to farming after he is laid off at the factory where he worked. They have three children, and one adopted son, Toko, who is physically disabled and spiritually gifted; he foresees the onslaught of environmental carnage. Grace’s short and lyrical novel covers environmentalism, cultural genocide, the effects of world wars on indigenous communities, mental illness, and physical disability. It works in Maōri mythology as well, and begins with a beautiful passage of carving the people’s ancestors for their meeting-house. The ending is bittersweet and uplifting. I highly recommend this to anyone who wants to learn more about Maōri culture, or who wants to read a story in which the indigenous community is not destroyed.

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The Female Persuasion

Faith was one of those people, Greer had started to see, who was seductive to almost everyone.

-Meg Wolitzer, The Female Persuasion

I read The Female Persuasion out of curiosity. It’s been on a table in the bookstore for a while, and I wanted to know if it was worth recommending. I don’t think it is. 

From the early pages, the book appears to be about a young woman from Massachussetts, Greer, and the influence of a prominent feminist named Faith Frank on her life. Wolitzer had several tics that annoyed me in this book, and the first was her tendency to move forward to the future. Sentences like this are frequent in the book: “Above them, Darren Tinzler strode down the wide, majestic stairway. He hadn’t been identified as Darren Tinzler yet, hadn’t been given significance.” This tactic can be useful occasionally, to emphasize the irony of a moment in the present if a character will change dramatically or hilariously. I’m sure I’ve read sentences like this before and enjoyed them. They were constant in Wolitzer’s book, though, and they took away from the coming-of-age structure of the book. I knew from the first few chapters in that Greer would split unamicably from Faith and that she would one day be famous. The references to Greer’s fame annoyed me because they’re presented as a given. The novel shows her fall, when she quits working for Faith and has to start her life over, and the last chapter flashes forward to Greer on a successful book tour, with enough money to buy an apartment in New York. I wasn’t as moved by the change at the end because I’d known it was going to happen. If Wolitzer had kept us with Greer in real time during the novel, the start of her life after Faith would have felt more frightening, and the news of her successful book would be more rewarding. 

The Female Persuasion tracks Greer’s life from the start of college, where she meets Faith at a lecture, through her late twenties, while she works at a foundation for women led by Faith until their aforementioned split. Wolitzer refuses to allow Greer to have any queer feelings for Faith, despite the fact that she admires Faith’s body and her appearance and felt such a strong love for Faith that the older woman is described as her reason for existing. Wolitzer goes so far to describe Greer’s feelings as “not sexual” to cover up any chance of queerness, which I thought was pretty unnecessary. Let it be heard: women have crushes on women all the time! It wouldn’t have changed the book at for this to be explicit, except that Greer’s obsession would have made a little more sense.

There are queer characters in the book. Greer’s best friend from college and afterwards, Zee, is a queer woman. She even gets a section to herself, near the end, and while I enjoyed learning about her life after college I didn’t really know why it was in this book, which was meant to be about Greer. As the book goes on, Wolitzer writes chapters about characters who make appearances in Greer’s story. Greer’s boyfriend, Cory, made sense to me as he had a chapter early on in the book and his chapters recurred. Zee’s lone section near the end confused me, as I’ve said. There was a chapter in the head of Faith Frank herself, which narrated her life and her rise to feminist activism, but didn’t, in my opinion, add much insight to her character. When I began a chapter from the point of view of Emmett Shrader, a millionaire who holds a longtime torch for Faith and who funds her women’s foundation, I felt that the book wasn’t about Greer anymore at all. The Female Persuasion tries to cover too much. If Wolitzer wanted the book to be about a range of people, the different characters’ chapters should have been split up more evenly, and the book should not have emphasized only Greer and Faith so heavily in the beginning. Every time I came across a new characters’ section I was confused, and annoyed, because I didn’t know what was going on with Greer. The structure of this book doesn’t give deep insight into any one character, and left me feeling like I’d read a bunch of short biographies. 

The saving grace of this book was, surprisingly enough, the relationship between Greer and her high school sweetheart, Cory. They stay together through college and for a few years afterward. Wolitzer’s descriptions of long distance were a little painfully true, but well written. I was really compelled by Cory’s character arc. I enjoyed his chapters most of all, even though his life includes the most soap-operary sections of the plot, including murder and heroin use. I also really enjoyed the descriptions of Greer’s first months working at the women’s foundation. She’s essentially an assistant, and she’s isolated from her colleagues, and I felt more in her head during this section than in any other part of the book. Perhaps if I’d been with her instead of Cory during some of the more intense moments of the book, I’d feel closer to her. As it was, I wasn’t moved by the climax, when Greer is heartbroken by the questionable morals behind the scenes at Faith’s women’s foundation. 

I wanted this book to be a better coming-of-age story. It addressed sexual harassment and the wide definitions of feminism, and it touched on intersectionality, but it was largely about idealizing an older, wealthy, white feminist. For anyone seeking a book that accurately and compellingly describes growing up in recent decades, I say keep looking—I’m looking, too. 

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Queer Stories

“Let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says.”

-Ali Smith, Girl Meets Boy

Ali Smith and Christopher Isherwood are both classic queer writers. I know I never stop talking about Smith, and I read Isherwood’s Berlin Novels for the first time last year. They were fantastic, very funny and, by the end, moving in their portrait of a Berlin that was changing before the Second World War. I found these Ali Smith books and Isherwood’s A Single Man in my room when I went back to my parents’ for Christmas, and I got around to reading them last week. 

Girl Meets Boy is Smith’s adaptation of the Iphis myth in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. For those of you who weren’t so socially isolated during uni that you read every last book on the reading list, the Iphis myth is about a family who can’t afford to give birth to a daughter. When they do have a daughter, the mother prays for her child to survive, and the gods allow her to raise her child as a boy; his name is Iphis, and he’s raised as a trans man. Iphis falls in love with a girl whom he grows up with and they are betrothed, but he worries that his marriage will fail when his wife figures out that he can never bear her children. He prays to become a man biologically, and his wish is granted. He marries his love and they live happily. Smith’s novel is set in 21st century Scotland, and it’s about two sisters, one straight and one gay. The queer sister starts dating a genderfluid person who inspires discussion of the Iphis myth. There are also public demonstrations against a large company, sexism and harassment in the workplace, and absolutely gorgeous moments of sisterly bonding. This book was short enough to read in a morning, and I highly recommend it for anyone who wants a beautiful, lyrical story about queer people and women standing up to male corporate authorities. 

Public Library is one of Smith’s several short stories connections. I thought I was getting used to the strangeness of her style, and she suprised me again. Public Library‘s stories are interspersed with quotes and short essays by literary figures about the importance of public libraries to them. There are also frightening statistics. Smith writes that from the time she began the book to the date of its publication, over a thousand libraries closed in the UK. The quotes Smith gathered reminded me how much I went to the library as a child and through high school, and I signed up for two library cards within days of finishing the book. The stories in this collection are largely in the first person, and largely read like autofiction. I didn’t like the first person as much as I liked the stories in Smith’s Free Love collection. These stories are also very literary; there’s one about a woman who’s dating a woman obsessed with Katherine Mansfield, and another about someone reading about D.H. Lawrence. Smith is a fantastic writer, but I would recommend the collection more for the memories of libraries than for the stories themselves. They’re so touching, and they brought back so many memories of all the libraries I’ve lived near and worked in through my life.

Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man is written in a very different tone than Ali Smith’s stories. It’s a short novel about George, a late-middle-aged gay professor living in L.A. in the 1960s. It follows him from waking up to falling asleep, and it’s written pretty distantly. Several passages separate George’s mind from his body, and his real persona from the person he presents to his neighbors and his students and colleagues at his university. He’s very depressed because his younger lover recently passed away, and over the course of the day you learn that their relationship wasn’t going well by the end. I loved how frank this book is. It describes the most mundane aspects of existence in an engaging way, simply because they’re rarely focused on in literature. There are also great passages about how L.A. has changed over the decades. There’s a description of the streets that still look like they did in the 1930s, and another great passage about how George’s favorite bar evolved from the end of the Second World War to the mid 1960s. Isherwood writes about gentrification in a very modern way; he distrusts suburban living for its heteronormative structures, and a lot of the things that frustrate George about L.A. continue to frustrate people who live in American cities. 

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Exploring Nonfiction

“Grief is not a whodunnit story, or a puzzle to solve, but an active and vibrant enterprise. It is hard, honest work. It can break your back.”

Hisham Matar, The Return

Books covered: Hisham Matar’s The Return and A Month in Siena

I almost never read nonfiction, partially because I write fiction and I want to learn more about the craft, and partially because I assume it won’t be interesting. That’s not true, of course. One of the few nonfiction books I have read over the years is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It’s about the woman whose cancer cells led to the first breakthroughs in cancer treatment, and I read it on a plane more than five years ago. There was a sentence about the red polish on Henrietta’s nails that I think about periodically, even though I can’t remember most of the book. 

I decided to read both of Hisham Matar’s memoirs because I’d read part of his most recent one, A Month in Siena, when I was fact-checking reviews at an internship in September. I thought it was so beautiful then that I kept reading past the quotes I was meant to be checking. I wanted to start with Matar’s memoir about his father to learn more about him. It was definitely the right choice–there were certain moments in A Month in Siena that wouldn’t have been as meaningful if I hadn’t read The Return.

The Return is about Matar’s search for his father, Jaballa, after he is kidnapped by the Libyan government for protesting against the Qaddafi regime. There is a lot of distressing material in the book, and Matar handles it fantastically. He doesn’t have any gratuitous descriptions because he doesn’t need them; the statistics are horrifying enough. Most of the male members of his family have spent ten years in prison, and it has changed everything about how they conduct themselves. Matar writes with such empathy of his uncles and cousins, and I have such a clear sense of his family. He also writes of the frustration and the subterfuge that comes with communicating with an uncooperative government, and of the strain he felt from childhood knowing that his father was a wanted man. I think what is valuable about memoir is the writer’s (assumed, at least) candor. Even though so much of Matar’s searching in The Return leads to dead ends, or to more questions, I felt like I was with him the whole time, through his fear and love and resentment. He has created an excellent voice for himself on paper. 

After The Return, A Month in Siena felt like a visit with an old friend–shorter than you’d like, but still lovely. It’s about the time Matar took to visit paintings by the Sienese school, which he’d discovered as 19-year-old living in London, still reeling from his father’s recent disappearance. I had read a few excerpts in September, and I realized when I read the whole book that it’s much more analytical about art than I expected. I liked that. Matar’s passages on the history of the paintings and the significance of certain images felt like a gentle, very personal lesson. He reads so much into the emotions of figures in the paintings. One of my favorite passages was about a dark-skinned figure among the crowd of a large painting; Matar wonders what the man’s origins are, and if he feels isolated in the Italian city where he’s been observed. The book itself was also beautiful. I don’t normally notice details beyond the font, but everything about A Month in Siena was gorgeous: the weight of the paper, the color photographs of paintings Matar disscussed, and the tall but narrow shape of the book. I didn’t let myself get food anywhere near it, which is unusual. (I don’t go out of my way to stain books, but if I do, I feel a little proud. I like to prove I was there, on that page, eating soup.)

Matar’s memoirs are important politically, of course. He combines statistics with community reactions in a way that taught me so much about the complexity of patriotism for a country affected first by imperialism and then undemocratic governments. Matar also writes about families in general, how parents and children relate to each other and how we express love. His books reminded me that nonfiction leads to connections with real people in a way that fiction can do a little, but not as completely. 

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Recommended Books

Catherine stared out into the drizzle. ‘The 80s are going on for ever.’

-Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty

Books covered: Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty

I like to try books that people recommend to me because I’d never pick them out myself. These two were recommended by one of my managers at the bookstore. I’d never heard of Claire Messud, and I’d heard of Alan Hollinghurst, but he wasn’t high up on my list of authors to try. 

The Emporer’s Children is about a three friends in their late twenties in New York City in the months leading up to 9/11. I was cautious about the premise because I think events like 9/11 are often used as unnecessary plot points. When I started this book I realized I also didn’t like Messud’s sentences. They didn’t flow well for me, and I actually put the book aside for a few weeks before I realized that I missed the characters. That’s why my manager had recommended it, for the vivid characterization, and that’s what brought me over to be a fan of this book. Messud does a fantastic job of showing us the personal lives of these three people, and the way they respond to the culture of the early 2000s (one’s a filmmaker, and two are writers). What I loved by the end was how secure they all thought they had been, and how much their attitudes towards work and romance changed in the months after the act of terror. No one in the book is entirely likeable, and Messud’s tone is largely satirical, but the last chapters are moving in a way I hadn’t expected. 

The Line of Beauty is a big, impressive book–it won the Man Booker in 2004 and it’s about a gay English man coming of age in 1980s Conservative society. Hollinghurst is a great writer, and the book moves really quickly. He manages to capture the confidence of upper-class society so well that even though I knew all of the ramifications of unprotected sex before AIDS awareness, I was still surprised when the disease started to affect the main character’s immediate circle. The book’s protagonist is an aspiring writer and an academic. While Messud was distanced from her characters’ pretensions, Hollinghurst leans into it. I had trouble relating to detailed descriptions of classical compositions and Henry James novels, and I didn’t understand some of the comparisons between say, a tennis serve and the way a certain movement was played on piano. Despite this, though, I was very moved by the book. Great coming-of-age books make us wistful for the more innocent days, and while the increasing danger of illness is an obvious reason for nostalgia, Hollinghurst has his character grow for many more reasons than AIDS. By the end of The Line of Beauty, I missed the younger, sweeter world of the first one hundred pages. 

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Library Chat: Burner Phone Books 1

Repressed White Men

Why, Mr. Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?

— Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

Books covered: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and John Cheever’s Journals

I said that I would focus on writers of color, but this first post will be all about the world’s Favored Demographic. I was finishing up a deadline for my masters when my phone was stolen, so these first few books are from my reading list.

It’s important to acknowledge that Ishiguro is not a white man. His narrator is, though, which makes me a little sad the same way that Ondaatje’s white protagonists make me a little sad. I wish their most popular novels were more focused on people of color, and I asked Ondaatje about that when I saw him speak a few years ago. He seemed offended that I’d written him off because of his characters when he’s still a man of color, getting published and winning prizes. It’s a tough call. I’ve been trying to feature more Indian-Irish characters because (correct me if I’m wrong! I would love to be proven wrong!) there are no Indian-Irish-American characters in literature. When that’s no longer the case, I’ll write about more varied demographics.

On to The Remains of the Day. This is a novel about a butler named Stevens, who works in a house that was owned by English nobility, Lord Darlington, through the Second World War. It’s currently owned by an American man–Stevens stays on after Lord Darlington’s death to work for the new family. On a vacation to visit the house’s former housekeeper, Stevens recalls the house before the war and his relationship with the housekeeper. It took me a few chapters to get into this book. I was annoyed by Stevens. I didn’t care about his tangents on the history of butlering, and I thought it was incredibly weird that he didn’t understand aspects of human interaction like humor. I couldn’t believe that anyone could be that disconnected from other people. Once I accepted that his repression was the point of the novel, I started to love it. If you haven’t read it or seen the film, go into it cold. I watched the film years ago with my family, and though I didn’t remember any details, I remembered one crucial aspect of the plot which is revealed much more subtly in the novel. As for the writing: Ishiguro structures the frame narrative flawlessly. The novel tracks Stevens’ progress from Oxfordshire to Cornwall, and the sections dip in and out of the past as though you’re chatting with him, or reading his diary. He apologizes for dwelling on events in the 1930s when he was meant to describe his drive that day. This keeps readers from forgetting when the novel is really set: in the 1950s, when Stevens is an older and sadder man. Part of Stevens’ repression is that he never acknowledges his emotions in his narration. We only discover that he looks upset when someone asks him if he’s okay, or offers him a tissue. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the narrator revealed so little–I found it fascinating. It’s a testament to Ishiguro’s characterization that Stevens’ inability to process humor, which was so odd in the beginning of the novel, becomes endearing at the end. Just before he sets off to return to Oxfordshire, he decides to “pleasantly surprise” his American employer by finally learning how to tell jokes. He hasn’t learned to live for himself, and only we know enough to worry about him.

Speaking of people we should be worried about: John Cheever. I haven’t read any of his fiction, but I’m curious about it now. A lot of the journal entries describe how he revises his stories, and I’d love to read them and track how they got to their published format. (If you’re interested in that: I highly recommend Fitzgerald’s I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories. A lot of these were either never published or heavily, heavily revised before publishing. Each story is prefaced with background about how it was rejected by various editors and the feedback Fitzgerald was given, and there are also photos of his original drafts, which I’m very into.) The back of the Vintage edition I have describes Cheever’s journals as “startling”, and I have to say I only got about a hundred pages in before I had to stop. He is very depressed. I wouldn’t advise reading these if you aren’t doing well–nearly every entry involves alarming quantities of alcohol and detached descriptions of pain and illness. But beyond all of that, he writes gorgeously. These aren’t choppy, inarticulate sentences: “The contemptible smallness, the mediocrity of my work, the disorder of my days, these are the things that make it, to say the least, difficult for me to get up in the morning. When I talk with people, when I ride on trains, life seems to have some apparent, surface goodness that does not need questioning.” His journal flows. It’s a great study of stream-of-consciousness, description, and brevity. In one entry he writes: “I feel the way I used to feel as a soldier.” He doesn’t need to expand on that with specific emotions, because we know that being a soldier in war is a shitty, anxious, endangered state of being. You can open any page of the journals to find a beautiful sentence about unhealthy living. He is fascinating, but I’ll leave you with a more lighthearted quote, because Cheever was bi and several entries are quite sexy: “You could drive a Jeep down the shadowy division of the ladies’ breasts.” As much as I want to question this, I can picture guys from my high school saying this. Cheever is very Repressed New England.

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Hey Darlings!

Welcome to my (very basic, for now) website.

I was planning my posts about the books I read while I didn’t have a phone and I realized that I’d like to do this on a regular basis. I’ve had a smartphone for just over a day, and I already have to force myself to keep reading instead of playing on the phone. Having a blog to chat about what I’ve been reading will be good discipline, and hopefully you’ll all find it interesting.

I’m not always good about reading, but I feel so much better when I do. It’s so much easier to start writing a story if I’ve just finished a book, whether the book inspired me or annoyed me so much that I’m determined to write something better. And as I work on the latest rewrites of my novel, reading as many novels as I can helps me to figure out basic plotting–how to make sure that something flows, and that chapters stay interesting. My masters course assigns reading with every writing packet and I loved responding to books in a more casual format. This will be slightly more casual. I promise I’ll try not to swear too much.

Everything I read is recommended, whether by someone laying out tables in a bookstore or by a friend. I hope that you all are inspired to pick up some of the (mostly brown) writers I’ll discuss on this website. Please keep recommending things to me, in person or in comments!